There’s nothing like studying alongside a Duke for a memorable student experience – but there’s more to my alma mater than Royal approval
My alma mater, the University of St Andrews, found on a picturesque coastal stretch of east Fife, has always been my number one. But the ‘auld grey toon’ has now also been named top in a prominent university guide – bettering the Oxbridge duopoly for the first time in nearly 30 years of the award’s history.
In a stroke of incredible fortune almost exactly 20 years ago, my first tutorial group, led by the urbane Prof Brendan Cassidy, was composed of me, seven female students and a certain male Royal. We became pals; he played in my Sunday league football team (The Strokers), and I attended his 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle.
Granted, there’s nothing like studying alongside Prince William to make for a wildly enjoyable student experience, but St Andrews possesses an unparalleled allure and long history that help boost the “student satisfaction” rating as assessed by the judges.
Before the heir to the throne and his future wife enrolled, people thought of St Andrews primarily as the home of golf. And before that, almost a millennium ago, it was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland with a magnificent cathedral and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe. The big draw was that it was supposed to be the resting place of Andrew the Apostle’s bones, from which it takes its name.
The town flourished thanks to pilgrim footfall. Scotland’s oldest university (and third in the English-speaking world behind Oxford and Cambridge) was founded in 1413, some 341 years before The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was established.
However, the complexion of the town was scarred following the violent Scottish Reformation in the mid-16th century. The Martyrs Memorial stands proud on the Scores, overlooking the sea – and close to where I lived in my final year.
One wonders what those martyrs and Saint Andrew would have made of the confident young men, with pink trousers and upturned collars, and plummy-voiced, wannabe princesses I studied with in the early noughties.
However, on the face of it, St Andrews is a bizarre choice for further education. Firstly, it is small – students make up around half of the town’s 18,390 population – and has just three main streets. Secondly, there is no nightclub, although arguably the annual Raisin Weekend, which culminates in a drunken foam party for freshers on the main quadrangle, makes up for that. Plus there’s always Dundee for dancing – just a 30-minute taxi ride away.
But there is so much to this tiny town, which is flanked by two long, sandy beaches – West Sands (where the opening shots of Chariots of Fire were filmed) and East Sands. With its world-class teaching and stunning surroundings, the university offers a powerful proposition, according to Lord Knight – former chief education adviser to Tes Global – who adds that its diminutive size can sometimes be part of its appeal. “Students like the human scale of a small university in a small place,” he says. “St Andrews is doing well by focusing on what counts: teaching quality and student satisfaction.
“Tuition is relatively well resourced in a great environment that makes for strong engagement and excellent outcomes. Fuse that with a rich history, international outlook and subject strengths in fields that are important to the economy, and you have a winning combination.”
Indeed, the latest rankings show St Andrews tops the charts in the UK for seven subjects: computer science, business management, English (for which straight As are now required), philosophy, physics and astronomy, Middle East and African studies, and international relations.
That the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are alumni has raised its profile and made it a more desirable place to study and teach. And despite its storied history, the university’s progressive and proactive approach to supporting the wellbeing of students has impressed. For example, its Can Do initiative – a joint strategy between the university and the Students’ Association – was started primarily to reimagine, experiment with and contribute to the St Andrews student experience.
Set up in October 2020, it has provided “space for students and staff to have normal interactions and social activities” even during the pandemic, says Lottie Doherty, president of the St Andrews Students’ Association. A marquee was set up and they organised outdoor socials such as a pier walk. Where possible, in-person teaching has happened for the past year.
Lord Knight believes this bold and brave approach to engage students, which was a stark contrast to the prison-like experiences of students at many other universities in the last year, has been rightly applauded. “The student satisfaction ratings have strengthened during Covid against a backdrop of many young people nationally struggling with mental health, and students questioning the value for money of online tuition,” he continues.
Professor Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the university, is revelling in the news, understandably. “As one community, we constantly strive for excellence, and have a strategy that hasn’t been afraid to believe St Andrews could challenge at the very top by combining the best teaching, world-leading research, and an unswerving commitment to student satisfaction and achievement,” she says.
Whether or not St Andrews is better than studying at Oxbridge is a moot point. Echoing Dame Mary Beard’s comments that we would do well not to be “fixated” by Oxford and Cambridge, Lord Knight adds: “Culturally, our country is over-obsessed with Oxbridge. St Andrews is an example of the strength and depth we have elsewhere in research, in teaching and in delivering for students the experience they need to be successful adults.”
The auld grey toon will always win for me. It has provided a vibrant life and career, and I’m grateful to have studied there two decades ago – not least because I wouldn’t have had the grades to attend the UK’s new top university today.
This piece was originally published in The Telegraph in September 2021